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Surprising Good News from Nicaragua
Felix Maradiaga and other political prisoners are free
It’s rare these days to be able to report positive foreign affairs news, but in a surprising turn, Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega released 222 political prisoners who landed at Dulles airport today aboard a U.S. charter flight. Many were opposition political figures who were preparing to run against Ortega in Nicaragua’s rigged 2021 election.
They had been charged with bogus crimes and convicted in sham trials straight out of a Hollywood portrayal of a tinpot dictatorship. Many endured brutal conditions in isolation in dank prisons.
One of the freed prisoners is Felix Maradiaga, a grad school classmate of mine and good friend. He was one of the main opposition members in the country and had a shot at winning a free and fair presidential election, which of course is why he was imprisoned.
Today, he reunited with his wife and nine-year-old daughter, who was six the last time he saw her. We briefly spoke this evening, and he sounded vibrant. That surprised me as I know he endured extreme hardship and lost a lot of weight. However, the flipside is that getting out of a horrid Nicaraguan prison and reuniting with family would make anyone feel vibrant.
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According to reporting in the Washington Post, the United States did not trade anything or anyone with Nicaragua to secure the release, and all the prisoners agreed to come to the United States as a condition of release.
A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration had offered for some time to take the prisoners. “As a general rule, we don’t like to do that,” he said — the United States prefers that the other government allow the detainees to remain free in their own country. “But the fact is, the humanitarian situation was so severe for this group” that authorities made an exception.
While the United States and Nicaragua maintain diplomatic relations, ties between Washington and the Ortega government have long been adversarial. The Nicaraguans surprised the U.S. Embassy in Managua a few days ago by saying it was prepared to send the prisoners into exile, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
It was unclear why the increasingly dictatorial Ortega, 77, made the move. Washington has steadily imposed new sanctions on Nicaragua’s government, targeting its leaders and industry and restricting visas for top officials and hundreds of Ortega’s supporters. But the U.S. official said the release of the prisoners was not tied to any easing of sanctions. “There was zero quid pro quo,” he said.
After Felix was arrested, several classmates and I had frequent contact with his wife and lawyers to discuss the situation and how to muster resources to secure his release, along with the other prisoners. I’m sure more details will come out eventually, but I know that the relentless advocacy by his wife and other spouses played a critical role.
Berta was a force who traveled to numerous international capitals to lobby governments and international organizations to pressure Ortega. We all knew that it was a long game, and that Ortega was not going to release prisoners until well after his “reelection” and consolidation of power. The stamina that Berta and the other spouses displayed was awe inspiring.
Last summer I attended a meeting in D.C. with Berta, Victoria Cardenas (the wife of prisoner Juan Sebastián Chamorro), their lawyer, Leopoldo Lopez — a former Venezuelan political prisoner represented by the same lawyer — and some grad school classmates. The conversation focused on getting the administration to impose sanctions on individuals close to Ortega so they would put pressure on him, which also appears to be part of what factored into the sudden release.
The release comes at a time when there is renewed discussion about the efficacy of sanctions. U.S. and international sanctions have not convinced Putin to withdraw from Ukraine, North Korea to cease its nuclear adventurism, and Iran to end its malign activity at home or abroad. In those cases, the countries are economically and politically strong enough and have licit and illicit networks and supporters to help evade sanctions, or at least blunt the impact of sanctions. I recently wrote an article about this based on research conducted by the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute and its findings that Russia uses a variety of nefarious tactics to obtain U.S. electronics to use in weapons systems.
Nicaragua, however, is the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere and despite friendly relations with China and Russia, those nations are not going to stick their necks out for Ortega. There isn’t enough upside for them to bail him out of sanctions.
So, Nicaragua shows that sanctions, when they target the right soft spots, can get results. Plus, whereas Russia and Iran have leverage — they can threaten or carry out attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East for example — that forces the United States to be more cautious about the blowback from imposing sanctions, Nicaragua doesn’t have the leverage or means to retaliate for sanctions.
Presumably, Ortega hopes and expects the United States to ease off and let him serve as dictator for life. Like most dictators, he knows that if he were to lose power, he’d face severe consequences for his laundry list of crimes and abuses, hence his zeal in rounding up opponents to ensure his electoral victory.
It will be interesting to see how the former political prisoners and the Nicaraguan community in the United States react. Will they take a scorched earth approach the way much of the Cuban American population has? Will they demand continuing sanctions in hopes of driving regime change? Or will they look for carrots to entice Ortega to soften his reign?
Knowing Felix, my guess is that they are going to continue to fight in any way they can to bring democracy back to Nicaragua, end the human rights abuses, and build a more peaceful and prosperous nation. That’s going to be a challenge, though, as the Ortega regime has labeled Felix and the others as traitors and might try to revoke their citizenship.
That’s tomorrow’s fight. Tonight, we’re just happy that Felix and the other prisoners are free, and families are back together. Thanks to everyone who played a part in securing their release.
Photo: With Felix Maradiaga in Granada, Nicaragua, 2007.